I applaud virtually all of Stephen Walt’s lucidly phrased, substantive recommendations for the revision of American foreign policy, especially the restrictive recasting of the American approach to nuclear weapons, the scaling back of threat perception, the recognition of the potency of nationalism as an inhibitor of American interventionary diplomacy, and most of all, the radical change in Washington’s relationship to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. These reforms are sensible, pragmatic, and would enable a much more successful pursuit of American goals in the world than we have seen during the Bush presidency and, to some lesser extent, in the entire course of America’s involvement in world politics since the end of the Cold War. Relative to this history, I would certainly feel better about the world if someone following Walt’s advice were to be our secretary of state. Indeed, I would go further. The world view and policy prescriptions set forth by Walt seem better than we can hope for in the near future given the orientation of the Democratic Party and the distorting influence of status-quo pressure groups favoring Israel, a militarized foreign policy, and corporate globalization. If the Kerry campaign was any indication, America and the world are facing a long period of lethal bipartisanship on foreign policy.
I am far less sympathetic to Walt’s framing of the foreign-policy debate. I find his uncritical attachment to American “primacy” troublesome from a normative perspective (law and ethics) and deficient from a functional perspective of global problem-solving. As a highly credentialed “realist” analyst of international relations, Walt takes his conceptual cues from the uncrowned king of the realist tradition, John Mearsheimer, especially by borrowing the orienting idea of “offshore balancing” from The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. The strategy of offshore balancing tells a state to refrain from entering contested geopolitical domains except when a competing state threatens to become a hegemon in a region of strategic importance (as Germany did twice in Europe during the 20th century and the Soviet Union once, each time provoking intervention by the non-regional actor, the United States). Offshore balancing is also identified with self-restraint, foregoing opportunities for expansion beyond existing contours of control, as was the case with American failure to maximize its power position in Europe or Asia after the two world wars. Rather than offshore balancing, I think the position Walt advocates for American foreign policy could be more clearly communicated if labeled “prudent realism,” an outlook perhaps most clearly formulated by the astute French commentator on world affairs Raymond Aron, or possibly by George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, especially in their realist opposition to the Vietnam War.
But my bigger difficulty with Walt’s embrace of realism is that it appears to celebrate American-style regional hegemony of the sort that has existed for more than a century in the Western Hemisphere. It is here, among other places, that Walt’s disregard of the relevance of international law and morality is exhibited most blatantly, underscored by the absence of any criticism directed at the bloody legacy of interventionism and authoritarian rule that American diplomacy has facilitated, if not imposed upon the region until very recently, especially in Central America and the Caribbean. Walt writes as if American primacy is something to be cherished and preserved rather than feared and avoided. It would at least have been useful for Walt to include in his argument a principled defense of American primacy. But it is here that realists almost always come up empty, presuming what needs demonstration. It is also here that the American bias of Walt’s perspective is most evident. It is impossible to imagine a defense of American primacy being written in any other part of the world without some elaborate accompanying explanation.
But my difficulties with Walt’s framing of foreign policy inquiry also extend to issues of historical circumstance and the challenge of globalization. He writes as if the Westphalian world order of sovereign states continues to be a viable basis for thought, policy, and action. There is no mention of globalizing developments covering a range of issues, including trade, money, economic regulation, environment, immigration, information technology, and crime, that can no longer be addressed by states acting on their own. Similarly, the rise of transnational social forces and non-state actors suggests that we have entered a post-Westphalian world whether the focus is placed on responding to global terrorism or promoting human rights and democracy. In this respect, realism is living in a historical bubble that is oblivious to the foundational changes that have been taking place for the last several decades.
In this respect, my criticism of Walt’s approach to American foreign policy can be reduced to a rather simple assertion: if you fail to ask the right questions, it is impossible to find the right answers. At this stage of history, realism is incapable of asking some of the most important foreign-policy questions, and therefore realists inevitably avoid a multitude of issues that require resolution. This failure expresses itself, among other ways, in the realist tendency to overlook the need for the construction of a global architecture based on law, institutions, and a cooperative ethos, including a gradual shift in understanding from “national security” to “human security.” Walt gives us a narrow band view of foreign policy that is certainly preferable to the Bush administration’s narrow band foreign policy. Walt’s essay purports to advocate a “mature foreign policy,” but from my perspective it could be more accurately be called an “obsolescent foreign policy” because it is so deeply rooted in the statism of a bygone era. Not that states are obsolete or that supranationalism is about to reconstitute world order. States will remain significant players for a long, long time, but they must increasingly share the global stage with the likes of the European Union, the IMF/World Bank, al Qaeda, the World Social Forum, the World Economic Forum, Amnesty International, and the World Parliament of Religions. Unfortunately, realists remain content to analyze world politics and foreign policy as if the only political actors that matter are sovereign states.
Realists lack an aspirational imagination. Consider what Walt proposes as the only three worthwhile options for American foreign policy: empire, balance of power, offshore balancing. Each of these is preoccupied with the management of power relations among sovereign states. None envisions normative horizons associated with humane global governance, the only perspective that has some prospect of saving humanity from a gradual slide into catastrophe. For these reasons, even as enlightened a realist as is Stephen Walt gives me little confidence that his recasting of American foreign policy would lead us out of the wilderness and in the direction of the promised land! In the end, despite his agenda of sensible action and policy repair, he offers us a counsel of despair.